In the 1990s and early 2000s I was an ardent supporter of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone; he’s the only candidate I ever volunteered for and there were throngs of misty-eyed 20-somethings who wanted to do so, because Wellstone was the most progressive and honest candidate who’d been elected to higher office. When he died in 2002 I attended a memorial service for a colleague who was one of his closest advisers and died on the same ill-fated flight, which was one of the saddest in my life. And at that memorial service, talking about Mary, I remember saying something positive and hopeful about Hillary Clinton one day being president, because I felt that she would carry the banner that Paul and Mary had carried, particularly her interest in healthcare and education.
Why am I reflecting on that now? Because at the time there seemed to be little question among a group of progressives that Hillary Clinton was “one of us,” and somehow in the intervening fourteen years she’s become the establishment and even the enemy. I’m wondering why that is, and whether it has anything in particular to do with her politics or if it’s an imagined splintering. It’s not hard to imagine Wellstone, had he lived, running the same kind of fiery campaign of truth as Bernie Sanders is now. But as a Wellstone supporter I sure never saw Hillary as an opponent. Bill had his critics, but Hillary was admired. People had bumper stickers that said “I would vote for Clinton but she’s not running.”
Yet, when Hillary running became a reality, and not a bumper sticker joke, the tone changed. What surprises me isn’t the contempt from the right, but the contempt from the left. A lot of it is vague and dismissive.
I supported Obama in 2008 but it was with no hard feelings for Hillary Clinton, but I think that particular primary race exposed a virulence on the American left… both racism and sexism became a part of the open dialogue, especially because social media was becoming a part of a presidential election for the first time and the filters were off. But as that endless primary wore on there seemed to be more and more enthusiasm for, if not Obama himself, for the idea of Obama — that an African American with a funny name and “exotic” background could win the presidency told a better story about America than the forty-odd white men who preceded him.
How come that same spirit has not gathered around Hillary Clinton? Why are white liberal men suddenly “feeling the Bern” instead of finding the same call to make America more like the land of opportunity it is rumored to be? How come the idea of Hillary Clinton hasn’t inspired men the way the idea of Barack Obama inspired progressive white people?
I think that there is a failure of progressive spirit in the sudden enthusiasm for Sanders, to keep finding excuses not to vote for a woman president. To be frank, I think men are happy to get off the hook. They can vote for an avatar instead of voting for a woman. To be equally frank, that must have been at least a part of my enthusiasm for Obama in 2008.
True, there is some resentment for Hillary that’s borne of her long history and familiarity. In a way it’s like an organization turning down an inside candidate who has labored for forty years inside the company and risen to a minor executive position in favor of a man with a shiny resume from elsewhere. You can have a long list of minor grievances (and no loyalty) to a woman you’ve worked with and for, but a new person is a blank slate, presumed to have all the right opinions, especially when he promises to fix everything. I think men are allowed to have their faults, to win out over Mr. Tabularasa, but women are not. It’s one of the quiet ways the glass ceiling remains intact.
Obama was Mr. Tabularasa in 2008, and he knew it. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote in the prologue that he had become, “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” I think he even knew that he benefited from the resentment of men — including liberal men — for women who rise above their station. Mind you, I think he’s been a fine president and is a good person. But he unarguably benefited from sexist backlash in 2008, even while withstanding and prevailing against racist backlash.
Now I think it’s time for American men to man up and elect a woman. I’m not satisfied with the dismissive attacks on Clinton as an explanation for voting against her, or the promise from a guy that he’ll support a woman president when Elizabeth Warren or some other Ms. Tabularasa runs, somebody with enough ideological purity to deserve the support of men, like a political Virgin Mary without original sin. A fundamental difference between men and women is that men are allowed to have warts. Heck, that other Clinton was wartier than a professional toad handler and we elected him twice.
And if Clinton does get passed over for Mr. Tabularasa, I think there needs to be a little soul searching on the left about why women are our biggest voting bloc and take on a lioness’s share of the volunteering but aren’t qualified to lead.